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A Look at America's Aging Natural Gas Pipeline Problem

Posted by Edward Dill on Jul 12, 2017 10:29:00 AM

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America’s vast network of aging natural gas pipelines are one of the biggest infrastructure problems facing this country. There are over 2.4 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. which supply gas to nearly 200,000,000 Americans. So, what’s the issue?

The State of U.S. Natural Gas Lines
According to the USDOT, more than half of all existing natural gas lines were installed in the 1950s and 1960s. As these systems age, they become vulnerable to cracks and fissures which can result in devastating gas leaks and even explosions. The most at-risk sections of pipeline were originally constructed from cast iron and/or bare steel, and there are significant barriers to replacement including cost, accessibility, and timing. These pipes are estimated to make up anywhere from 5-15% of all natural gas lines in the U.S.

Why are aging gas pipelines such a big concern? Because natural gas leaks have a variety of causes. Slow corrosion of aging pipes is a given, but weld failures and even nearby construction can lead to a leak, and natural gas leaks are inherently difficult to detect. Because the utility is piped directly into homes and businesses, leaks often occur in heavily populated areas. Even more concerning, many natural gas pipelines follow roads and are attached to bridges, making other infrastructure vulnerable in the event of a failure. Once a volume of natural gas builds up, something as simple as a spark or a lit cigarette can cause a horrific explosion.

How to Improve the Natural Gas Pipelines
Replacing and maintaining America’s natural gas lines is tricky business – the lines are technically owned by more than 3,000 companies, organizations, and municipalities. The time-cost and labor involved in upgrading aged pipelines can be extensive, but studies show that failure of said pipes costs far more (to the tune of $7 billion in property damage since 1986.) Small leaks alone cost gas providers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost gas a year; a cost that eventually gets passed down to the consumer.

What are some of the ways in which natural gas providers can make their gas lines safer? Some have called for the installation of digital automatic shutoff valves that can quickly stop the flow of gas. Others tout the use of “smart pigs,” tiny robots that crawl the length of pipes to look for problems. What actually works, though, is an investment in the maintenance of existing pipelines designed to prevent failure, not clean up afterwards.

The companies that maintain natural gas pipelines across the country are responsible for adhering to all regulations under PHMSA. As a guideline, PHMSA suggests replacement of bare steel and/or cast iron pipes with more reliable, longer-lasting plastic and treated steel. As an alternative, there are many existing solutions that don’t require complete replacement of pipelines at all, such as galvanizing treatments and on-spot re-welds. Better in-pipe monitoring systems, too, can help head off disastrous leaks before they become an issue.

 

Aptus works with natural gas companies all across the U.S. to detect and repair natural gas pipeline leaks, particularly on bridges. Bridge-installed pipelines make up thousands of miles of the country’s natural gas supply, and these utilities are some of the most vulnerable to age. When you’d like to find out more about how Aptus is helping make America’s infrastructure safer, give our experts a call.

Topics: Bridge Utilities, Safety, Pipeline Design